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From saffron alliance to name-calling: Shiv Sena and BJP in Maharashtra

Together, the BJP and Shiv Sena ruled Maharashtra for nine years and seven months in two separate stints. A look at the trajectory of their relationship, gains and losses, and the current hostility.

Written by Zeeshan Shaikh , Vishwas Waghmode | Mumbai |
Updated: January 25, 2022 1:07:48 pm
Prime Minister Narendra Modi with current Maharshtra Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray in 2019, ahead of the Lok Sabha polls. (Express Archive)

Maharashtra Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray on Sunday accused the BJP of perfidy and betrayal, and said the Shiv Sena had wasted 25 years in its alliance with the party. The Chief Minister’s strong statements betrayed the raw state of the relationship between the once-close saffron allies.

Trajectory of relationship

In the initial years after its founding by Bal Thackeray in 1966, the Shiv Sena fought to ensure reservations in jobs for sons of the soil, and had a flexible need-based relationship with political parties including the Congress. It gained from the alliances, even as it opposed these short-term political partners at other times.

The Sena started out championing a hard regional identity, often targeting its nativist politics at migrants in Mumbai. It jumped on to the Hindutva bandwagon in 1989, when it formed an electoral alliance with the BJP, and looked to expand its influence beyond Mumbai to rural Maharashtra.

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The relationship was symbiotic, and benefited both parties. The Sena fed off the BJP’s popularity to gain ground in national politics, while the BJP deepened its roots in the state with the help of the Sena. The late Pramod Mahajan worked to keep the relationship going, and the BJP leadership of the time, Atal Bihari Vajpayee and L K Advani, had no qualms in pandering to the demands of the Sena. Central BJP leaders personally visited the Thackeray residence Matoshree in a ritual acknowledgment of the Sena’s dominant position in the saffron alliance in Maharashtra.

The nature of the relationship underwent a change with the emergence of Narendra Modi in national politics. The huge groundswell of support for Modi in the Lok Sabha elections of 2014 convinced the BJP that it no longer needed to bend before the Sena. Ahead of the Assembly elections scheduled for later that year, it demanded a larger share of seats — and when no understanding could be reached, chose to break the 25-year-old electoral alliance with the Sena.

The parties got back together to form a coalition government; however, the relationship had suffered significant damage by then. The BJP-Sena government of 2014-19 was marred by friction among the partners, and even though the parties contested the Assembly elections together, they fell out over forming the next government. The Sena walked away from the NDA, and joined hands with the NCP and Congress with Thackeray as Chief Minister.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Shiv Sena chief Uddhav Thackeray. (Express Archive)

Gains and losses

Together, the parties ruled Maharashtra for nine years and seven months in two separate stints. While the Sena was the dominant partner from 1995-99 with Manohar Joshi and Narayan Rane heading the coalition government, the BJP had the upper hand during 2014-19 when Devendra Fadnavis was Chief Minister.

In the seven Assembly elections between 1990 and 2019 — all of which except the election of 2014 the parties contested together — the BJP’s vote share rose from 10.71 per cent to 25.75 per cent. It peaked at 27.81 per cent in 2014, when the parties contested separately.

The Sena by contrast, went from a vote share of 15.94 per cent in 1990 to only 16.41 per cent in 2019, having peaked in 2004 with 19.97 per cent of the vote. In 2014, the Sena won 19.35 per cent votes.

The current hostility

At the heart of the problems between the Sena and BJP is the latter’s aggressive expansionism in Maharashtra, cutting into the political space of the former. The current leadership of the BJP was less accommodating of the demands of its erstwhile partner, and the Sena felt aggrieved and insecure.

Since the formation of the Maha Vikas Aghadi government, the parties have frequently given vent to contempt for each other. While the BJP has accused Thackeray of abandoning Hindutva and pandering to Muslims, the Sena has attacked the BJP for weakening India’s democratic structure for political gain.

The acrimony has led to name-calling and trading of personal insults. The Sena has in particular taken offence at the BJP’s demand that Thackeray step aside as Chief Minister as he recuperates from a surgery of the spine that he underwent in November last year. The suspension of 12 BJP MLAs from the Legislative Assembly for a year — a matter that is before the Supreme Court now — and the belief in the MVA that the BJP is misusing the office of the Governor to put hurdles in the path of the government, has contributed to the rancour.

Message in CM’s speech

The Sena this year faces its first major political test since the formation of the MVA government in 2019, in elections to urban local bodies across the state, including the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC), the country’s richest civic body that is considered the party’s personal fief.

The BJP has been making a concerted effort to upstage the Sena at the BMC, and Thackeray’s adversarial speech on Sunday was intended to indicate that his party was ready for the fight. Sena leader Sanjay Raut has said that the party would like to expand its base across the country.

The BJP on its part has predicted that the alliance with the NCP and Congress would drag the Sena down further. “Why are you taking out your anger against BJP? In the elections for nagar panchayats, the Shiv Sena emerged fourth. Instead of analyzing the reasons, the CM is irrationally targeting the BJP,” Fadnavis has said.

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